When the advance review copy of John Darnielle’s new novel, “Universal Harvester,” arrived in my mailbox in a plastic VHS cassette box, I thought to myself: “Here we go. High and low culture has already plunged into the nostalgic waters of the 1970s and 1980s. The ’90s, are you next?’’
But if there was anyone to mine this decade for renewal, it might be Darnielle. The singer-songwriter behind indie darling band the Mountain Goats remade himself as literary magician after his acclaimed 2014 debut novel, “Wolf in White Van,” was long-listed for the National Book Award. Folks have been champing at the bit for his next trick.
In some respects, Darnielle doesn’t disappoint. Channeling Raymond Carver and Stephen King, and tapping into the unsettling doom of 1990s shows like “Twin Peaks” and widespread Y2K hysteria, “Universal Harvester” reads like a melancholic, at times creepy, tone poem — in hardcover, without plastic case like the galley.
The action takes place in Nevada, Iowa, one of the “shrinking places in the world where the people you meet growing up are the people you know later on.” We first become acquainted with Jeremy, an aimless 22-year-old who works at the town’s Video Hut. The shop serves as a snapshot of the time when movies such as “She’s All That” and “The Sweet Hereafter” still circulated on VHS, even as the country took baby steps into the digital era.
The plot thickens or, in Darnielle’s hands, hunkers down, when video store customers discover some movies have been taped over with murkily-shot scenes of people in chairs, wearing hoods, a woman running off into the fields. A prank, someone’s sex tapes, or a cry for help? Jeremy and a schoolteacher named Stephanie halfheartedly investigate, while store owner Sarah Jane tracks one filmmaking location to a farmhouse owned by another local named Lisa.
To be sure, Darnielle isn’t plotting some clunky whodunit. Each section of the four-part book offers another overlapping puzzle piece, but he subverts our expectations for the genre at every turn. And, aside from the VHS setup, Darnielle doesn’t do much with his 1990s setting. Soon we’re off to another time and place: the 1960s and ’70s to explore Lisa’s childhood and early marriage of her parents, Irene and Peter. We return to Jeremy et al in part three; in the final act, a new set of characters investigate the videotape mystery years later. The narrative suffers from a kind of attention-deficit disorder.
Complicating the plot is the identity of the storyteller, or storytellers. The omniscient third-person perspective is interrupted by a mischievous voice, sometimes using the first person, that steps in like a Victorian children’s book narrator, commenting on the veracity of events, or spitting out alternative facts. “Some accounts” of these other story lines “do not survive”; others have become “a thing already passing into legend.”
If this point of view jiujitsu is distracting, the riddle of each character’s inner life keeps our attention. Like “Wolf in White Van,” whose protagonist constructs a fantasy role-playing game for emotional survival, “Universal Harvester” characters are dogged by their emotional limits. The death of Jeremy’s mom, six years prior, causes him pain described as “psychic strain, the sort of stuff he’d once been adept at evading.” Irene ponders where her previous self has gone to: “Hiding around here somewhere: she has to be. People don’t just go missing.”
In “Universal Harvester,” they do. They ratchet down expectations for themselves. Emotional states and dreams are metaphorical places. Men like Jeremy’s dad, Steve, and Peter find “compartments” to store nagging questions. For Sarah Jane, the “person [she] hoped to be by now has set up shop and is making do with available materials.”
The mystery of the tapes and the identity of the “I” narrator aren’t revealed till a somewhat awkward and spurious act four. But Darnielle, the songwriter, seems to not care for logic in this jumble of characters and fun-house perspective mirrors. As the fractured story line crumbles, “Universal Harvester” contents itself to sing this haunting, lyrical, interior-minded ode to the stoic souls of Iowa farm towns. “The Blair Witch Project,” that adrenaline-laden ’90s horror hallmark, this is not. But as Darnielle reminds us, sadness can be just as scary: “Mute and palpable, the melancholy would last at least through March. There was a melody to it you could catch if you weren’t trying too hard.” Stranded in the vast landscape of the Midwest, you better learn to sing along.
By John Darnielle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 214 pp., $25